Meanwhile, back at the ranch …
To answer your question, ranch dressing did in fact come from a ranch. And yes, the name of that ranch was Hidden Valley.
But the route to fame didn't just start there.
It started in the Alaskan bush, where businessman Steve Henson—who played cook on top of his main gig as a plumber—came up with an idea to help calm down the workers annoyed that they had to eat salad.
"It's tough to feed men up in those bush jobs," the Nebraska native told Los Angeles Times food reporter Sergio Ortiz in 1999. "If they don't like something, they're as likely to throw it at the cook as they are to walk out cursing. I had to come up with something to keep them happy."
(The source article isn't online in easily accessible form, but I did you a favor and put up a version of it here.)
His solution involved a mixture of three fairly simple ingredients: mayo, buttermilk, and various herbs. It proved just the thing to get the workers to eat their vegetables.
That simple combination would come to save Henson and his dwindling nest egg after he finally launched the ranch of his dreams in 1954 outside of Santa Barbara, California.
Henson's dude ranch was essentially intended as a hideaway for tourists. It occasionally drew some, but it wasn't the ranch itself that was driving chatter after the fact. Rather, it was the dressing served on the salad.
Customers started asking for bottles to take home, some in increasing numbers. In one case, a visitor from Hawaii asked for 300 bottles at once. Henson and his wife couldn't make that many bottles in a short amount of time, so he instead offered the visitor a number of spice packets, telling him how to reproduce the recipe.
The visitor soon wanted more spice packets. Slowly but surely, the dressing became more popular than the ranch. And while Henson hoped to become rich with a ranch, the ranch he became rich from outgrew the far-off property from which he launched the company.
The world could not be kept away from this milky juggernaut.
Five unusual contexts for ranch dressing
- Because someone had to do it, a company called Rocket Fizz has been making a ranch dressing-flavored soda for the past couple of years. Here's a dude taste-testing it on YouTube … for science.
- Prolific romance book novelist Janet Dailey became famous for writing books based in every single state, but the late author should be equally known for titling a short story collection of hers Ranch Dressing. Someone had to do it.
- Speaking of things people had to do, the vegan food company Organicville makes a brand of non-dairy ranch dressing, which has roughly the number of calories as Hidden Valley's light dressing.
- All crazy food things must be inspired by 8-year-olds. Need evidence? If you find yourself near Whitefish, Montana anytime soon, ask Sweet Peaks Ice Cream to serve you a cup of ranch dressing ice cream, a flavor that was inspired by the owners' daughter and is made from Hidden Valley Ranch packets.
- Ranch dressing, like just about everything else, has its own day on the calendar—and, sorry to say, you just missed it. Every March 10 is Ranch Dressing Day. Hidden Valley, of course, thinks that the dressing deserves its own month.
Ranch across borders
The ultra-fatty salad dressing concoction may be huge in the U.S., but outside of it, it's mostly a non-entity.
Nowhere is this perhaps as perfectly underlined as it is in Iceland and Norway, where it's a common sight to see convenience stores hawking "Cool American"-flavored Doritos. The U.K. is in on the secrets of ranch dressing a little more than in other places outside of North America, but even there, Doritos are called "Cool Original"—despite the fact that ranch was never the original flavor of Doritos and only became a Doritos flavor in 1987.
In fact, Doritos (another popular example of an American junk food with a fascinating origin story) are something of the trojan horse on which ranch dressing is riding on into new markets.
An example of that slow expansion: Last year, an Australian YouTuber named Elly Awesome had a freakout moment after discovering that Cool Ranch Doritos was being sold in her home country for the first time.
Ranch dressing hasn't reached all corners of the world in the way it has in the U.S., but American food chains like the Middle Eastern version of Subway and the Malaysian version of Chili's are helping to cover the world in dressing.
Eventually, they'll get assimilated into the buttermilk way of life.
"It just kind of turned into a joke. Okay, if people are going to keep asking for ranch, I thought it'd be funny if I could find one of those 'in case of emergency break glass' things. That's how it started, I went online searching for one that I thought would fit a ranch bottle."
— Jay Jerrier, the owner of a Dallas pizza restaurant called Cane Rosso, discussing with Eater how the pizzeria put a bottle of ranch dressing behind a glass case—and started charging, as a joke, $1,000 per side of the mayo-buttermilk concoction. The pizzeria's clever wall ornament became Reddit-famous last year.
"Buttermilk is a good base for anything. You can use it to make a hundred things in the kitchen," Steve Henson said in his 1999 Los Angeles Times interview. "I experimented with other mayonnaise-type dressings, too, but they just don't have the consistency of a real mayo and buttermilk mix."
Henson's greatest work has evolved into a pop-culture punchline, seen as a quick way to mock the gluttonous ways that Americans eat. Certainly, there's a good point there: we literally throw a gloppy mix of buttermilk and mayo (two of the higher-fat options in one's fridge) onto just about everything, not thinking of the damage it's causing us. As sauces go, you're better off with mustard, salsa, or hummus if you're watching your dainty figure.
(The salad-dressing industry realizes that ranch could eventually become a target of Michelle Obama and company and has tried to play up its role as an accent to healthier foods. Then again, Clorox also did create a thicker, dip-style version of the sauce, calling it "the new ketchup.")
But Henson, who died in 2007 at the age of 89, was clearly onto something, even if he didn't see most of the profits from his most successful business effort.
Clorox, despite not owning a patent on the flavor, has managed to keep its finger on the pulse of what consumers want out of ranch dressing the same way a blogger might keep pace on an important news story: According to the WSJ, it follows Google Trends and sees how people are talking about using the sauce, then uses that to concoct new variants like "Fiesta Salsa Ranch," "Avocado Ranch," and "Cheese Ranch."
We expect Hidden Valley to produce a Sriracha Ranch any day now.